Notes from a Provincial Queer: 5 explorations of queer rural culture

Originally published on Medium, 22 May 2020.

You may be familiar with God’s Own Country, but here are some other great examples of queer rural artistic work to experience.

ONE: PROSPECT COTTAGE AND DEREK JARMAN

He was one of the most influential British filmmakers of the 20th century with numerous features and shorts including Sebastiane (1976) and Caravaggio (1986), but Jarman was also a painter, set designer, gay rights campaigner and gardener. In 1986, he purchased a small cottage, formerly a fisherman’s hut, on the beach at Dungerness. In sight of a nuclear power station, he set about creating a sculptural masterpiece made from hardy plants rooted into the shingle alongside pieces of driftwood he found scattered on the shore. After his HIV diagnosis, Jarman said he found gardening a form of therapy. It is well worth a visit, and both his Modern Nature and Derek Jarman’s Garden are food for the soul.

TWO: THE FRIENDLY YOUNG LADIES

Mary Renault is best known among the gay community for her Alexander the Great novels (including the must read The Persian Boy) and her war-time gay novel, The Charioteer, but The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) explores two ladies living on a houseboat. It opens in Cornwall with the adolescent Elsie deciding to search for her older sister who fled the village a decade earlier. Elsie discovers Leonora (Leo) living on a houseboat on the Thames with another woman. Exploring bisexuality and friendship, the unconventional setting of the river offers a liminal space between the town and country.

THREE: ON THE RED HILL

Mike Parker writes about his move to rural Wales and how he and his partner become involved with the lives of an older gay couple, whose house they inherit. Combining memoir, nature writing, and a discussion of gay history, this multifaceted book eloquently captures the journey of gay people searching for a sense of belonging. It offers an unsentimental portrayal of the natural world and what it means to make a life in the countryside. When I recently chatted with Mike, who is now working on a new book about borders and borderlands, he spoke of other LGBTQ+ people who inspired him, including Jan Morris and James Baldwin.

FOUR: MAGGI HAMBLING AND THE SCALLOP

Scallop, is a four-metre high steel sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, created by artist Maggie Hambling. Hambling, who describes herself as ‘lesbionic’ made the piece as part of a memorial to Benjamin Britten. The shell features a line of text from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. Some opposed the memorial on the grounds that Britten was a homosexual and conscientious objector, but Hambling explained how the piece is also about a conversation with the sea. It is a stunning piece of work which won the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.

FIVE: HENRY SCOTT TUKE

I first saw Tuke’s work as part of the Queer British Art Exhibition at the Tate. After training at the Slade School of Art, Tuke travelled to parts of Europe before settling in Newlyn, Cornwall. While some of his work has raised questions about his focus on adolescence and young male nudes, (The Critics, 1927 or August Blue, 1893) his impressionistic rendering of the English coast and the human form has made him an important chronicler of coastal life and boyhood in the Victorian period. His paintings depict fishing, sailing and swimming as well as T E Lawrence, who would go on to become known as Lawrence of Arabia.

It is interesting to note that most of these artists and writers have engaged not just with the rural but with interstitial spaces, such as the coast. It is perhaps the natural position of an artist to exist between spaces, observing from an edge, but perhaps this is also something particular to a lot of rural gay experience.

And for the American rural queer experience…

Take a look at Dorothy Allen’s Trash, Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy and Megan Kruse’s Call Me Home.

For more discussion on rural queer read my pieces on coming outqueer rural space and class.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s